A look into America’s oldest Carmelite monastery

Mount Carmel Monastery Discalced Carmelite sisters from the Mount Carmel Monastery in Port Tobacco, Maryland. | Screenshot from EWTN News In Depth

Nestled in the farmland of Port Tobacco, Maryland stands the oldest Carmelite monastery in America. Founded in 1790, the Mount Carmel Monastery was the first Catholic convent for religious women in the U.S. The women who live here are cloistered nuns who spend their days in prayer behind the iron gates inside their walled-off property. 

While visitors are welcome to enjoy the peaceful outdoor spaces of the monastery, the chapel, and the gift shop, very few are welcome behind the walls. Bill Hoxie is one of these select few. He is the sisters’ carpenter and groundskeeper. He grew up Protestant and never thought he would end up working at a Catholic monastery, but after offering to do a project for the sisters several years ago he has been working there ever since. 

“The sisters are truly in love with Jesus in a way that I’d never witnessed,” Hoxie said in an interview with EWTN News In Depth. “Of course, when you’re in love, you’re happy. So the sisters are the happiest women I’ve ever met in my life.”

“It’s a deep down happiness when you’re doing God’s will, then you’re free,” Reverend Mother Marie Bernardina, the prioress of the monastery, told Mark Irons, correspondent for EWTN News In Depth in a special interview. “You don’t have to be in the cloister to be free, but for us, that’s our calling.”

The sisters sat behind the bars of the cloister during the interview. This division symbolizes that the nuns are set apart for union with God. 

Sister Dolores Peter of Jesus Crucified in the Precious Blood began her formation with the Carmelites seven years ago when she began learning more about the Brown Scapular. She is now nearing her profession of final vows. 

“I just can’t even imagine wanting anything else to be honest,” she said. “We spend so much time in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s like the first person I see in the morning is the Lord in the tabernacle. It’s the best thing.”

The Brown Scapular can be worn by lay Catholics but has a special significance to Carmelites. Its history goes back to July 16, 1251, when the Blessed Mother presented it to St. Simon Stock, a Carmelite saint, as a sign of her protection. Under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mary is the patron saint of all Carmelites.

“To wear it, it means you pledge yourself to her and to what she stands for,” Mother Virginia Marie O’Connor said. “You pledge yourself to Christ.”

“Our life is a love affair with God, you know, with Jesus,” she added.

Reverend Mother Marie Bernardina explained, “It’s her order and we want to imitate her and her love for Jesus. She was the perfect mother, she was totally open to what God wanted and that’s what we want.”

Carmelites have time for work and recreation, but their main focus is prayer for the good of the Church and the world. Famous saints who entered the Carmelite order include St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. 

“Our vocation is prayer,” Sister Dolores Peter said. “People say ‘Well yeah, but what do you do?’ I said, ‘We pray.’”

“Carmelite spirituality is, I think, something that the world badly needs today,” she added. “There’s so much clutter, so much distraction in the world.”

Hoxie wasn’t sure what was missing from his life but he found it when he started working for the sisters. Not long after, he converted to Catholicism. 

“He will lead you to something better than you could imagine,” he concluded.

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